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As October fades into November, and the time for serious negotiating between owners and the NFL Players Association begins to fade, the realities of what could be a tumultuous summer are starting to come into view.
Indeed, we might be on the verge of one of the most bitter offseasons in league history, thanks to how the collective bargaining issues could drastically change free agency. One needs to only look over the list of potential unrestricted free agents, a robust collection of talent that will be dramatically reduced if the owners and players can't agree on an extension of the collective bargaining agreement by the start of the new league year (March 5).
Per the guidelines of the current CBA, which expires at the end of the 2010 season, a significant change takes place if the agreement enters its final season: Players who would be unrestricted free agents entering the final year of a CBA must have at least six accrued seasons. If they have less than six, they can only qualify for restricted free agency – a far more stifling designation. (An accrued season is when a player gets paid for a minimum of six games while being on the active, inactive or injured reserve portions of the roster.)
That means players like Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware(notes) and San Diego wideout Vincent Jackson(notes) won't be able to sign elsewhere unless another team is willing to give up some form of compensation for them. Dallas could tender Ware a one-year deal that would require a team to surrender a first- and third-round NFL draft pick if it wanted to sign him.
The same with Jackson. Or both could be slapped with their team's franchise tags and prevented from even negotiating with another NFL team.
It's a potential alteration that could create some major shockwaves this offseason, because it allows teams to put forth cheaper one-year deals rather than committing to the long-term contracts that almost every restricted free agent will be looking for this offseason. And as teams attempt to cheaply retain their talent with one-year offers, agents are expected to fight back with holdouts this summer.
White signed a six-year, $54 million contract in August.
(Paul Sakuma/AP Photo)
In fact, a handful of agents told Yahoo! Sports that if teams plan to skate by on one-year deals rather than commit to long-term contracts, they'll hold their players out of training camp, much like the agents of Falcons wideout Roddy White(notes) did this past offseason. White was seeking a new long term deal and eventually got it after sitting out the first week of training camp.
While that's hardly an uncommon tactic, this could be the first offseason where a litany of players seeking long-term deals are either franchised or given one-year tender offers. And instead of creating a few disgruntled players, there could be as many as 20 to 30 jousting with their teams for longer deals.
With that in mind, here's a look at some key players in this year's potential class of restricted free agents. The following analysis is based on their potential futures as restricted – not unrestricted – free agents.
Players with five accrued seasons headed into the offseason (one season short of qualifying for unrestricted status)
DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Dallas Cowboys
A lock to get the exclusive franchise tag if a long-term deal can't be worked out. Despite his slow start this season, he's a game-changing pass rusher and Dallas would never risk tendering him, or even gambling with the non-exclusive franchise tag, which would award the Cowboys two first-round picks if he went elsewhere. He's destined to remain in Dallas.
Shawne Merriman(notes), OLB, San Diego Chargers
One of the most intriguing free agent players of this offseason. Heading into 2009, he still looked like a franchise tag guy, but because of his knee issues and friction with the front office, it's possible the Chargers could offer him as little as a first-round tender and hope that another team signs him. His play the rest of this season will determine how much San Diego truly values him, but it appears extremely unlikely they'll sign him to a long-term deal. Barring a return to his previous Superman status as a pass rusher, he'll either be on a one-year deal in San Diego in 2010, or playing in another city.
(Lynne Sladky/AP Photo)
Braylon Edwards, WR, New York Jets
Possibly the second-most intriguing player next to Merriman this offseason. His future is also based on what happens the remainder of this season. The Jets have already invested pieces in him with a trade, so it seems likely that a long-term deal is in the offing, particularly if he plays the way he did in the Monday night loss to Miami. He wanted out of Cleveland badly. His second wish will be a long-term contract. Whether he gets it, he's almost certain to be a Jet in 2010.
Vincent Jackson, WR, Chargers
One of the cornerstones of the Chargers' future. That means he's not going anywhere. With running back LaDainianTomlinson in the sunset of his career, and tight end Antonio Gates(notes) turning 30 this offseason, Jackson is headed toward being a focal point of the offense. One way or another, he's going to get a long-term deal. And if it can't get done this offseason, he'll be hit with the franchise tag.
Nick Collins(notes), S, Green Bay Packers
With a pair of cornerbacks that are aging, Collins is the long-term playmaker in the secondary. He's a Pro Bowl talent, and the Packers will treat him like it, having the franchise tag waiting for him if a long-term deal can't be reached. He's too valuable for even a first- and third-round tender.
Jason Campbell(notes), QB, Washington Redskins
A long-term deal doesn't seem likely, but Campbell won't be allowed to walk away from this franchise for nothing. Even if he only meets last season's numbers (3,245 passing yards, 13 touchdowns), he's still got value. And if the team decides to go in another direction at quarterback, Campbell will still be worth a second-round tender, just for his value as a tested veteran backup. The second-round tender salary is expected to fall between $1.6 and $2 million next season. That's pretty economical for Campbell's skill level and experience.
Kirk Morrison(notes), LB, Oakland Raiders
Say what you want about the Raiders defense, but Morrison has the ability to be a tackling machine and would have some solid value on the open market. At the very least, Oakland would give him a tender equal to the round he was drafted in (the third) to make sure they got something in return if he signed elsewhere. A long-term deal doesn't seem all that likely right now, considering he nearly lost his starting job in the preseason.
Players with four accrued seasons headed into the offseason (two seasons short of unrestricted status)
Brandon Marshall(notes), WR, Denver Broncos
Based on his latest remarks, it sounds like owner Pat Bowlen is clearly happy with the way Marshall has responded to his disciplining late in the preseason. Bowlen's talk of Marshall lining himself up for a "significant raise" obviously speaks to a long-term contract. Unless Marshall does something foolish (and let's be honest, it's not out of the realm of possibility) it sounds like he'll get a deal near the end of this season or early in the offseason. And even if he doesn't, it's a likely franchise tag situation.
(Ron Chenoy/US Presswire)
Kyle Orton, QB, Broncos
Orton is worth keeping an eye on, because he could still go a number of directions. Right now, he looks like a good fit in coach Josh McDaniels' offense. If that's the case, and Orton sustains his current level of play, he's likely looking at a lucrative deal in the offseason. If that deal can't be reached, it will be interesting to see the Broncos' move. At minimum, he'd likely receive a first- and third-round tender. However, it seems even more likely they'd move to get a long-term deal with Marshall and then put the franchise tag on Orton, 26, to eliminate any chance of losing him. Solid young quarterbacks are just too valuable.
Elvis Dumervil(notes), LB, Broncos
If you just look at the numbers and consider what the pass rush would be like without his contribution, Dumervil is right on that line of possibly being a franchise tag type of player – particularly if he can build off this season's strong start (eight sacks in five games, with five of those sacks coming on third-down plays). Having the tag available for Dumervil would mean having worked out long term deals for Marshall and Orton, because it's likely neither of those players could be retained simply with tender offers. Dumervil's situation could be very, very interesting. He doesn't have perfect size, but he fits well with defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's 3-4 scheme. And sacks are coveted in the NFL, even if some teams still don't see Dumervil as an every-down linebacker/defensive end. If a long-term deal can't be reached and he's given a tender offer of a first- and third-round pick, it could be a risk.
LenDale White(notes), RB, Tennessee Titans
He's been used very inconsistently in the Titans' first five games, so it's suddenly hard to assess his real value. Clearly, he's still the guy who spells Chris Johnson, but White fits right in with an offense that's just all over the place. He has cut his weight down, but is that good or bad? Could he be a No. 1? These are things that will likely be answered as the season progresses, but at the very least, you'd have to think the Titans give him a second-round tender and wait another season before committing anything to him long term. However, a team desperate for some running back depth would likely make a run at a second-round tender.
Darren Sproles(notes), RB, Chargers
His slow start running the ball (2.4 yards per carry) isn't helping to alleviate questions about whether Sproles could be a legitimate starting running back rather than an upper-tier complementary player. It remains a possibility that Sproles could fill more of a Ray Rice(notes) role, becoming a versatile threat that is eventually surrounded by other supporting pieces. However, the lack of clarity in his role right now isn't going to make a long-term deal any easier to reach, particularly when the Chargers have so many other pressing concerns in that department. It's hard to believe Sproles will be franchised for a second straight season. A first-round tender looks more likely, coming in at one third the cost of another franchise tag and still likely being costly enough in compensation to keep other teams away.
Leon Washington(notes), RB, Jets
Some like to think of Washington as the Jets' Ahmad Bradshaw(notes), but Washington hasn't been nearly as explosive through the Jets' first five games. That said, the Jets' defensive veterans speak in glowing terms about him, and Washington is going to continue to see his role grow as he moves forward. Is he worth starting running back money? That's going to be the sticking point that could keep a long-term deal from being reached this offseason. If they can't come to terms, look for New York to put a first- and third-round tender on him. A franchise tag, a la Sproles in San Diego last offseason, isn't totally out of the question, but it would likely depend what that salary figure would be for 2010.
D'Qwell Jackson(notes), LB, Cleveland Browns
While he's still got some critics who argue that he's more of a tackler than a playmaker, there is no denying Jackson is one of Cleveland's bright spots on defense. And the franchise has been indicating a contract extension is coming since last offseason. So if a deal can't get done, they'll treat him like a defensive cornerstone and put the franchise tag on him until something can be flattened out long term.
DeMeco Ryans(notes), LB, Houston Texans
Ryans is essentially in the same spot as Cleveland's Jackson: a valued defensive piece that will eventually be taken care of. To the Texans, he's franchise tag material if they've got no other option. And a first- and third-round tender is a risk. The one complication is the situation with cornerback Dunta Robinson(notes), who is playing this season and still looking for his own long-term deal. Like the Carolina Panthers' situation with defensive end Julius Peppers(notes) and offensive tackle Jordan Gross(notes) last year, the Texans have to get one squared away to at least have the option of using the franchise tag on the other.
Stephen Tulloch(notes), LB, Tennessee Titans
Despite some size concerns, he has really opened some eyes around the league as he has become a valued part of Tennessee's defensive core. And were he to hit the open market, he'd command a lucrative deal. That said, he may not be franchise tag material at this point, which points to a first- or second-round tender as the Titans grapple with a pretty sizable number of players who will be seeking new deals this offseason.
Willie Colon(notes), OT, Pittsburgh Steelers
A league source has already indicated Colon will be franchised if the team can't get him signed to a long-term deal. He's considered by many to be the Steelers' best offensive line talent right now and would be pursued by several teams in free agency. They won't take a chance with a tender offer.
Marcus McNeill(notes), OT, Chargers
He's a long-term priority, maybe even slightly more so than Jackson because of the offensive line's latest injury and depth issues. If he were free, he'd likely be the most sought after free agent of this entire class –– not just the most sought after offensive linemen. Simply put, he's going to get paid, and the Chargers know it. It's just a matter of finding the right number for both sides. This is one piece of the puzzle in which general manager A.J. Smith won't be willing to part.
Jerious Norwood(notes), RB, Atlanta Falcons
The latest concussion is bound to give a moment of pause, but it's not expected to be a long-term issue. Norwood would provide a much-needed explosive change of back for some of the league's other teams (like the Redskins), but Atlanta will likely give him a first-round tender that will make any team's pursuit difficult. A long-term deal might be a little more tricky, particularly if Norwood believes he can be a starter and is thus worth starting money.